A depth-chart inquiry, info on viewing preseason games and a little news on Andre Drummond’s free throws dot the docket in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Darrell (Detroit): As I look at the Pistons roster, I notice the that the team only has two true small forwards. In the event Harris or Johnson’s injured for an extended period, who plays backup small forward?
Langlois: A few years ago, that might have been a cause for concern – or raised eyebrows, at least – but not so much any longer, Darrell. Stan Van Gundy, as he made clear when we previewed the Pistons on a position-by-position basis over the off-season, doesn’t have five positions but four: big men, point guards, wings and forwards. You don’t need to play with a set number from each position group any longer, either. So it’s possible this season the Pistons play with one point guard, one big man and three wings (Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Avery Bradley, for example). There might even be times they play with one point guard and then a mishmash at the four other spots with Jon Leuer, Henry Ellenson or even Anthony Tolliver – all players Van Gundy considers forwards – manning the five spot. If Harris or Johnson were to be unavailable for an extended period, as you suggest, Kennard or Bullock would take minutes there. Tolliver might in certain matchups. Even Avery Bradley when teams go even smaller, which is less and less an infrequent occurrence these days. So if we’re going with a conventional depth chart, you’re right: the Pistons look thin at small forward. But if you’re looking at Van Gundy’s depth chart, he thinks they have better depth on the wings than they’ve had since he’s been here.
Lenon (Detroit): Will preseason games be streamed from the Pistons website?
Langlois: All three home preseason games – the first three games of the preseason on Oct. 4, Oct. 6 and Oct. 9 – will be streamed on Pistons.com but only in the Fox Sports Detroit viewing area by NBA rules. For the two preseason road games, you’ll have to listen on 97.1 FM.
Michael (Houston): Coaches have stress in their job and it is not easy for anyone. In your opinion, based on what you’ve seen from the Detroit Pistons, how does their coaching staff handle their stress performing their jobs?
Langlois: Stan Van Gundy takes losses hard and, by his own admission, doesn’t get nearly as much joy at the other end of the spectrum from winning. But he’s as self-aware as any coach I’ve encountered in too many years around the profession at all levels. He understands that there are people whose jobs have life-and-death consequences – doctors, first responders, military – or profound impact on people’s lives, like teachers and counselors. He’s a fully formed human being, not a man who’s only comfortable in the narrow lane of coaching and sports, and understands on some level there’s something not completely healthy about investing as much emotion into the pursuit of wins as he does. It’s why I don’t think he’ll be a guy coaching into his 70s and perhaps not even deep into his 60s. He’s finding his time with the Pistons rewarding in that he’s realizing a vision he had for how an organization should function – the synergy between the front office and coaching staff enabled by having one person charged with oversight of both – and I believe he feels a deep obligation for the welfare of all the people who’ve come to Detroit to work for him. But he’s not the kind of guy who can’t imagine a life outside of basketball.
Askari (@askari_jaffery): Has Andre Drummond improved on his free throws?
Langlois: That’s nothing we’ll be able to assess until the bullets start flying for real. I can tell you that I’ve seen him shooting them in drills and his form looks much cleaner. But the caveat here is that Ben Wallace used to shoot free throws at a 70, 75 percent clip in practices but never approached that level in games. Drummond has struggled to shoot them in drills before, too, but he’s been noticeably better in the limited opportunities I’ve had to see him so far. Stan Van Gundy said that after Tuesday’s first practice of training camp, Drummond successfully completed an exercise to make 10 consecutive free throws for the first time since voluntary workouts began in early September. He says his form looks better which not as much extraneous movement.
Omar (@Homiedino): Is Andre Drummond going to be shooting threes this season?
Langlois: I’ll wager a buck that he won’t shoot any other than end-of-shot-clock rushed attempts or end-of-quarter heaves. And he’s pretty good at the latter. Anything beyond that and he’ll risk spiking his coach’s blood pressure.
Paul (@P_Shabs08): Who will be the starting point guard at the start of the season?
Langlois: Assuming no hiccups with Reggie Jackson’s return, it’s him. Hands down. There is widespread optimism that he’ll be good to go, but because the rehab protocol has limited his activities we just don’t know yet how his knee will respond to the stress required to get him ready to go full speed, full time. He’ll be limited in training camp to one practice during two-a-day sessions and he’ll be on a minutes limit in preseason games, starting at a yet undetermined number and then gradually increasing his workload over the course of five games. I’d be surprised if he plays at all in the Oct. 10 game at Toronto, the second night of a back to back. And, at least early in the season, the Pistons might shut Jackson down in those situations. The good news is the Pistons have 14 back to backs this year, down from 18 last season and 20-plus in several seasons prior to that.
iMoon (@Thenamemoon): Do you think we have playoffs hope?
Langlois: Of course. If the Pistons aren’t, at minimum, in serious playoff contention when March turns to April, there will be profound disappointment at every level of the organization. Given the landscape in the East and the growth in the organization during Stan Van Gundy’s time, no one associated with the Pistons would flinch at that statement. Now, it’s possible that things beyond their control – injuries, for example – affect a playoff drive as happened last season with the absence of Reggie Jackson for 21 games and his diminished capacity throughout the season. But given reasonable fortune on that front, they expect to be a playoff team. They believe they have the depth, talent and experience – that last part something they have in greater abundance than at any time in Van Gundy’s run, though they remain a young team with only one player older than 30 (Anthony Tolliver) – to make a serious run at a top-four seed and home-court advantage.
Detroit Soul (@zapataguevera): Any unknown roster invites we need to watch that will press for a spot?
Langlois: Barring training camp injuries or an unlikely trade, the roster is set. The Pistons have 14 guaranteed contracts: Andre Drummond, Boban Marjanovic, Eric Moreland, Jon Leuer, Henry Ellenson, Anthony Tolliver, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock, Avery Bradley, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway, Ish Smith and Reggie Jackson. They have two two-way contract players: Luis Montero and Dwight Buycks. They have two camp invitees who will be designated as affiliate players, meaning the Pistons will be able to assign them to their G League franchise in Grand Rapids without having them exposed to the league draft: Derek Willis and Landry Nnoko. And they invited Beno Udrih to training camp to give them an extra body while dealing with Reggie Jackson’s limited availability. They could add one more player to their camp roster if they choose; the limit is 20. If something were to happen to create a need, they could sign Udrih outright to an open 15th roster spot.
Brendan (@BrendanWelper): Do you think Tobias Harris will return to the starting lineup?
Langlois: Gone into detail on this in previous Mailbags, but that’s my bet. What would cause it to change? If Stan Van Gundy decides that what would be sacrificed by removing Harris from the starting lineup would be more than made up by what he brings to the second unit, he’d have all the motivation he needs to make the change. There are other considerations, of course, starting with how Harris might be affected. It’s not an easy thing for many players to accept. But Harris has last season’s experience, when he flourished in that role, to help ease his transition if it comes to that.
Ken (Dharamsala, India): Hypothetically, if Jackson cannot play at 100 percent then what happens? Ish and Galloway at point? SVG must have a Plan B, right? Trade?
Langlois: Jackson is their best offensive player and one of the best pick-and-roll operators in the league. You can have a Plan B, but it isn’t going to be a comparable option. If LeBron James goes down, Cleveland’s Plan B is going to be a pale imitation. And, no, I’m not comparing Jackson to James, but illustrating the larger point that basketball stars are paid at the level they are because the supply is limited. If Jackson can’t raise his level of play over what we saw last season, Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower will have to retrench and consider their options. That would more than likely result in trying to acquire another starting-caliber point guard. That’s a tough nut to crack during the season, though. It more likely would have to wait until next summer. But we’re a long way from crossing that bridge. The full expectation is that Jackson will be back to full speed at some point, sooner rather than later. He’s 27 and he’s not coming off a traumatic injury – or at least one that’s widely known to hasten a player’s permanent decline. Banking on his recovery seems the prudent course given their options.
Ahmed (San Antonio): Charles Barkley discussed the NBA’s new rest policy and playing back-to-back games. He said, “these poor babies can’t play back-to-back games” and mentioned NBA fans who pay money to watch the games. I believe the NBA should have about 65 games with no back-to-back games. What are your thoughts?
Langlois: Charles is too young to be so consistently playing the “we were better” and “we had it tougher” card, but he’s so charmingly cantankerous that he gets away with it. I have a mixed bag of thoughts on it. There’s no question that it’s unrealistic to expect elite athletes – and not in a vacuum, but against other elite athletes – to be at anything approaching their best when you force them to perform 82 times in the span of about 175 or 180 days. On the other hand, I’m with Stan Van Gundy when he wonders how NBA players in the ’70s and ’80s managed to perform so admirably while playing greater minutes, flying commercially (and don’t underestimate the difference between commercial travel and private charter) and not having the bevy of amenities – in the forms of far greater numbers in training, strength, nutrition and sports science staffers – at their disposal. The data show that injuries occur more often in back-to-back games. The NBA has cut down on them significantly – the Pistons played 22 a few years ago, 14 this season – but even 14 games out of 82 represent 17 percent of the schedule. Too many. It’s not all the NBA’s fault, though. Teams, by and large, want weekend home dates whenever possible, so you’re going to get plenty of Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday back to backs. Teams share arenas with hockey tenants and concert dates, another impediment to ideal scheduling. Cutting the schedule from 82 to anything sounds good but isn’t going to get very far unless teams want to give back a ton of money to their broadcast partners and corporate sponsors promised X number of dates but now getting X-minus-Y and unless players agree to cut their salaries by a commensurate percentage. So, never. A little progress here, a little progress there and maybe they can whittle the back to backs by another 10 or 20 percent. That’s probably the best we can expect in the foreseeable future.